The infamous Berlin Wall was socialism itself: concrete and razor wire in the name of humanity, guard towers and machine guns in the name of human progress. It’s ostensible purpose was to protect vulnerable East Germans from invasion, but as a practical matter it was simply a way of preventing the slave populations of the USSR from escaping to the West.
By the time it finally fell on November 9th, 1989, 5,000 had attempted to cross it, most ending up in brutal labor camps and about 200 killed on the spot. And yet, so unhappy was life behind the Iron Curtain, that young people in particular never stopped trying to breach it. The following films remember the Wall and its victims.
The first victim of the Berlin Wall was 18-year-old Peter Fechter.
The moment he was shot down by East German border guards as he tried to cross the barrier to the West, the Berlin Wall quite suddenly became real because everyone near the wall saw him die. In a poignant record of the tragedy, British Pathe provided this unnarrated, silent 3-minute clip.
“Peter Fechter (14 January 1944 – 17 August 1962) was a German bricklayer from Berlin in what became East Germany in 1945.” –Wikipedia
Despite the risk, many made heroic escapes, particularly in the beginning when the Wall was not fully completed, as captured in this early news reel.
Inspired by these heroic escapes, a young George Lucas, later of Star Wars fame, would make one of his earliest short films, Freiheit.
A number of tunnels were attempted, some successful. Several films were made on the subject, including Berlin Tunnel 21 starring Richard Thomas, and the German film Der Tunnel.
One of the most daring escapes, in which a family used a hot air balloon to get out, was made into an excellent film by Disney, Night Crossing.
This was remade in 2020, with the release of the German film Balloon.
The human cost of the Berlin Wall was not only human life as such, but human misery on a scale unimaginable. It separated loved ones quite suddenly, and for decades. That cost is well captured in The Promise, a film about a young couple in love. It begins with their attempted escape to the West. The man slips, hesitates, and before he knows it the moment is lost. His girlfriend goes on and makes it to the West, but he is left behind. It isn’t clear why he hesitated. Was it fear of being caught? We and he don’t know. But his failure fills him with guilt, compounded by his subsequent draft into the border guard service. Each further opportunity for him to escape is lost by bad luck and his own lack of daring. And as time goes by, he makes one compromise after another to survive until finally he is doing whatever the state wants him to do just to have the slight crumbs of happiness they allow him.
Then one day a speech that almost didn’t happen changed everything. Speechwriter Peter Robinson was told by US diplomats to write a speech for President Reagan’s visit to the Berlin Wall, but was warned against any “commie bashing.” He didn’t take their advice, and Reagan loved what he wrote. “Tear Down This Wall” became an iconic moment of the Cold War.
Enough time has apparently passed that Germans can now laugh about the Wall, in a sort of bittersweet way. The German-made comedy Good Bye Lenin! captures, in its own ironic way, the fall of communism far better than any straightforward telling. At one level, it’s a delightful farce that relentlessly mocks East Germany’s socialist past, but at another it also touches on the emotional perspective of many former East Germans, that in the transition to freedom…their side, the side they had been taught to love, lost.